I feel rather like the early bird who has caught the worm. Last month I had noticed that out chickens were behaving strangely. Or rather more strangely than usual. In early January, and still in deep winter in anybody’s book, they had started laying heavily. They were supplying eggs much faster than we could use them and clearly though that the spring had arrived. They had started to create clutches and shown signs of going broody. This was an easy mistake for them to make as we had very mild temperatures and nothing really wintry at all.
This posed a dilemma. I had to decide in January whether I should put some of these eggs into the incubator for hatching. However, although I knew the hens thought spring had sprung I did not know if the cockerels had been infused with the vernal spirit and had sprung into action. If not, if the cockerels had correctly thought “This is still winter”, then I might be trying to hatch a clutch of unfertilised eggs. Not anticipating any miracle I decided to put a batch on and see what happened.
I needn’t have worried. The chickens determine the mating it seems. Cockerels don’t give a fig what time of year it is and they’ll happily mate all year round as the progeny above confirm. This is another unsettling sign that our seasons and are changing. It is not without consequence as I now have chickens born while the ground outside is better suited to building snowmen than scratching for food. I’ll need to rear these chicks indoors under a lamp for a considerable period before I can let them out. Let us hope they prosper despite the inopportune timing of their entry to the smallholding
I tend to agree with the Irish Meteorologial Office and think that Autumn (fómhar) has started. They follow the old gaelic tradition that Autumn is comprised of August, September and October. In Welsh the month of July is named Gorffennaf which is literally the end (gorffen) of summer (haf) and I have lived in Britain long enough to know that November is winter. So, however we dress it up, after July, and before November, is Autumn in my book. This, without any shadow of doubt, is my favourite season, the one which surpasses all the others. Summer is too hot, Winter is too cold and Spring is too busy. Autumn has that perfect mix of an ideal climate and productive nature. This is the season when rural life blossoms. Each village and small town will have its local Show where produce and craft can be displayed. Then, following these, the area’s social life will start to resume after the lull of the summer.
These last weeks have started to feel truly autumnal. The temperatures have dropped, the colours have started to change in the trees and the produce following summer is everywhere. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the hedgerows. Dues to the long hot spell in summer the berries have done much better than usual and we will need to start collecting blackberries (Mwyar Duon). The hedges are heavy with berries and they have started to ripen. If we leave it too late we will lose out to the birds who always know when the berries are ready and get up earlier in the morning than we do.
We will have the grandchildren around to help us making the collection and this year there will be a larger educational component. Because of the hot summer the berries have done well. This also means that the honeysuckle berries are also prolific. The children will need to be taught how to tell them apart . Although they are not greatly poisonous, and one would have to eat heroic quantities to come to harm, they are toxic and can cause gastrointestinal upset if eaten. It will be a good lesson to explain that although things may be superficially similar that doesn’t mean they are equally good, or bad.
The blackberries are a welcome free crop and I anticipate a much larger store of jam this year than before. Our other free crop this year came in the form of honey. Our bait-hive attracted a swarm of bees and after a relatively short sojourn there we found they had produced a reasonable stock of honey. This honey, though slightly cloudy, is very pleasant in taste and was a very welcome present from our new visitors. It is the season when the shelves in the pantry start filling up, getting ready for the start of winter.
One task that starts again at this time of year is the chipping of the goat yard. During the spring and summer the goats find plenty of material to eat while out browsing in the meadow. On wet days, that we see during autumn and winter they are not keen on venturing far from the yard and the comfort of their sheds. Unlike sheep, goats do not have lanolin in their wool, and thus are much less tolerant of rainy weather. During this time when I have edging work to do on the fields I cut down the overhanging branches and feed them to the goats. They then strip off every leaf, especially quickly when it is their favourite trees (oak, ash, willow and beech). I then cut the branches into staves or firewood depending on shape and size. The remainder is put through the chipper to create useful animal bedding. The bedding, once it has been mixed with animal urine and faeces and rotted down for a period, is then gradually added to the compost pile. Nothing is wasted if it can be avoided.
One other useful product of this process is the protection of my mental health. You can take all your “stress balls” and relaxation strategies and through them out of the window. If you have something on your mind, something or someone bugging you, or a problem you can’t solve then get out the Earthquake Woodchipper and fire her up. You will now be engulfed in a wall of angry woodchipping noise; if you want to mutter, grumble or swear no-one will hear a word you say. The pleasure there is in throwing branches down the chipper, to hear them splinter into a myriad of chippings, is difficult to describe. You can’t imagine who, and what, I have put through that chipper in my imagination! We are lucky we are still free to think what we like and there are no thought crimes (yet) or I’d be writing this from the computer in the prison library.
Even without its benefits for mental health I’d have to recommend this chipper. Electric chippers and shredders are always too weak and you end up spending more like clearing them than using them. As they say, if it hasn’t got the ability to take your arm off its not strong enough ! You need a petrol engined model. This one uses the four-stroke Briggs and Stratton engine and meets the most vital criterion for petrol driven appliances – it starts on the first pull! It is noisy but you could wear ear-protectors if this was an issue for you. The European version comes with some safety attachments absent on the American model (It is dangerous to put your arm down the cutting chute – who would have guessed?). I guess that Americans are recognised as being able to think unlike we Europeans who need to be protected from such dangerous activities.(*)
As is so often the case in life, the problems of physical and mental health sometimes have their solutions in the world of work and activity. In our steady march towards a world of leisure we might well be marching in the wrong direction.
Sorry about the quality of this video, it hard to work with a camera balanced in the rim of your hat.
(*) I have worries about these safety modifications. I found that the raised bin in the shredder, and other attachments, made the machine harder to use. Also as you spent time trying to bypass the difficulties caused by these safety additions you started to place yourself in danger while operating the machine. I am not sure that these modifications increase operator safety and fear they may even impair it.
It was really rather unsettling. The coincidence seemed too unlikely to be simply chance. I was clearing a path between the house and the lower meadow where the goats graze. To make the rather monotonous work a little more enjoyable I was wearing headphones and listening to a random mix of the music I stored on my phone. I was enjoying listening to old favourites and realising that, if I was not careful, I could be mistaken for an old hippy. As I worked in the dark undergrowth The Byrds’ version of “Turn, Turn, Turn” was chosen. This Pete Seager song is one of my favourites, it was on his “The Bitter and the Sweet” LP and this is perhaps why enjoy it so. It is bitter-sweet. There is a deep melancholy in the music, but it is balanced by equally strong feelings of hope. There must be death if we are going to be able to have births, like the seasons, life is a circle, and everything has its appropriate time. The lyrics are directly from the Bible and the only words Pete Seager added were the final “It’s not too late” and the three words “turn, turn, turn”.
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
Like many people I feel that the opening guitar work evokes thoughts of 1968 and the Summer of Love, Woodstock and the Hippy movement. But in addition, I always think of this as the farmer, or smallholders, song. I know that the guidance is suitable for everyone (we all need to know that our lives will change, that we will grow up, have children, grow old and then die) but I feel that it is resonates especially strongly with those who work on the land where these seasons are even more obvious.
So what was the coincidence that happened with this song that caught me unawares? Just after the song had started I was clearing below a very bushy aralia shrub. As I cleared the brambles and nettles a small clump of white caught my eye. It was a small patch of cyclamen, shining brightly now the sun could penetrate the gloom below the bushes. It was cyclamen, coum f. albissimum (Ashwood Snowflake) to be more precise, and its name should help explain the reason for my surprise. This cyclamen is named because of its white colour but also due to its flowering season. Usually this plant flowers in mid- to late-winter, from January to March. It really is not the right season to catch sight of its delicate flowers. Here was another reminder this year that we are clearly messing up our seasons. We have had heat and drought such as we have not seem for two generations, the hay crops have failed to grow as there has been inadequate rain (In North Wales!), insects which should have died in the winter survived through and plants that we never expect to flower in this region start to show their colours. I was aware we had some large spiky evergreens as they attacked me each day as I tried to get past them on the way to the greenhouse or chicken sheds. I was in two minds as to whether I should trim these or root them out. I knew the goats liked the leaves but could see no other reason to keep them, particularly as they regularly stabbed at my legs. Then suddenly this year, never seen in this garden for at least a generation, they suddenly bloomed revealing themselves as Adam’s Needle (Yucca Filamentosa). This is a plant that like a dry soil and open sun, things that should be scarce in this reason.
The song is correct; “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose”. Our agriculture and lives depend on this working together of the seasons and the knowledge of man. But now it seems we have potentially damaged our seasons and our usual skills can’t just be applied as before. When I saw this little white flower, peeking out 6 months early, and listening to The Byrds, the melancholy of the song was suddenly amplified. Perhaps it is too late, maybe we have damaged the gifts we were given, perhaps our season is drawing to a close. But, then again, perhaps, hopefully Pete Seager’s words will hold true :-
It is a fact that sometimes I stretch the definitions of words, almost to their breaking points, to try and take part in the Daily Prompt. It’s a fact that sometimes I look at the prompt and think “How on earth can I wheedle that word into a sentence ? What does it even mean ?”. However, it is also a fact that today I had no such difficulty. Over the last week I have been working hard simply because of the fact that good foundations make good sheds.
Because kidding and lambing are soon to start (my neighbours have had their first lambs already) I have been getting ready. This year we will need more bays for the goats and this had meant we have to move half of the barn’s content into a nice new shed. Now I have a lot of experience in knocking up sheds and know that this can be a lot of fun. But there is a first fundamental step which is no pleasure at all – building the base. It is an easy step to omit or to bodge, but when I have I have always regretted it. The shed is never really robust, and always ends up rotting, when I skimp on this step. So, in lieu of a new year’s resolution, this year I was going to do it properly. This means about weeks preparatory work for a small shed.
The first step is digging. It is necessary to dig out a level area about a yard wider and longer than the shed you intend to erect. In our land this is no fun as we have a very clay rich soil – indeed we have thought about abandoning growing vegetables and try pottery instead. With a mild damp winter the soil has been very wet which made digging a real chore. It is best to start from the lowest, easiest corner then dig back into the deepest area. All the time you do this use you spirit level and a large plank to try and create as level an area as possible. I found for a 12×8 foot shed this took me two days.
Next is a good idea to insert pegs, made from scraps of wood from an old pallet, at approximately a yard apart. Use the spirit level to tap these in so that the tops are all level one with another. This is also a good time to check that you can create straight edges to work with. I use long lengths of 4×3. Once you have these in situ check that the corners are at right angles with a square edge. Another check, at this point, is to measure the two diagonals – these should be exactly the same if your corners are true.
The next stage is to spread aggregate (half inch to dust as it is called) to a depth of about 3 inches. I needed just over a ton to cover the base of this shed. Spread the aggregate and level it with a rake. Then walk all over the area to tramp it all down. At the end it should be level with the tops of the pegs and the sides of the planks. I found that this was a fairly slow job as my aggregate could only be delivered to an area about 300 yards away. So it was innumerable trips with a wheelbarrow and this stage took about a further two days.
The next stage was laying concrete slabs. I have found that using 600mm square slabs are easier to use than the smaller versions. It is much easier to keep things level when using a larger slab. I use large dollops of cement under each slab to hold it in place. As you site each slab check that it is level in both directions and level with its neighbours.
Work along one of your straight edges first to get good straight row to start to follow. I use a gap of about 1cm between each slab. I have found a mortar mix of 1 part cement to 5 parts sharp (not building) sand gives a good result. Be careful not to over water your mix; you want it slightly on the dry side to keep its shape as you manouevere your slabs. Again I found I needed two days for this step. After a full day to let the mortar dry I used the same mix to fill in the gaps between the slabs.
The next stage is optional but worth considering if you are in wet area. If you omit this step then consider creating a gutter around the base to stop any chance of the water pooling and encouraging he base of the shed to rot. I put 5 old railway sleepers evenly spaced across the slabs. These are treated with creosote and, although I treat them as sacrificial, will last for longer then the shed. We had the same fun shifting these as the aggregate as, again, we could not have them delivered that close to where we were building. Another day of heaving and swearing – be prepared these are heavy.
By the end of the week we had our base ready. It took about 3 hours to assemble our shed on top of it. In three hours I had hidden all of my work. The shed feels rigid and dry and I think nothing will shift it. But, no matter how good the shed looks, the fact is I am happiest about the base, that was the important part of the job and that’s a fact.
The last days of autumn are with us and the snow on the hilltops suggest winter is not far away. The work on the smallholding has changed accordingly. It is this gently changing rhythm that makes life so pleasant. I recall my days working; when each day was similar to the last, the same challenges faced day after day, the same routines whether it was winter or summer, Monday or Friday.
However, one task I could happily avoid is the freeing of sheep from the briar patches. At this time of year one of the few sources of greenery for the sheep is the bramble. They love bramble leaves, almost as much as ivy leaves, but unfortunately as it is the end of the year they are also wearing their thick coats. While the sheep pushes itself into the briar patch its fleece acts as armour to protect it from thorns. However, this spurs them on to go deeper into the thicket when they them get stuck as the tendrils of the brambles get caught up in their wool. They get stuck sound, unable to move, and at risk of dying from thirst and starvation.
At this time of year we need to do four checks a day and to be armed with secateurs and thick gloves every time. We will try and clear these patches and the goats are great allies in this. They too like eating brambles but are more agile than sheep and don’t carry the thick fleece which causes them to be trapped. By the end of the month, after everyone’s work, we should be out of the woods as far as this problem is concerned.
Diet also changes with the season. Not just in the concerning seasonal fruits and vegetables but also our meats. It is always this time of year that we have a flurry of pheasant meals. Usually shot by ourselves but today courtesy of someone who enjoys the shoot but not the product. I can understand why some people are not keen on pheasant. The first few times we ate it I was decidedly unimpressed. I think the problem is that roast pheasant can often be a dry meat and sometimes quite bitter as well.
However, having tasted pheasant and other fowl in casseroles I have been converted and now it is something I start to look forward to in October, knowing in November and December there will be a surfeit of game fowl. The best recipe is probably the simplest and uses root vegetables and cider as described below :-
Skin the pheasants and take the breast and leg meat. Don’t bother trying to pluck them as this is unnecessary work and adds little to the final meal.
Brown the meat in a casserole dish.
Add whatever vegetables you have to hand. We usually use celery, turnip, parsnip, celeriac, leek and onion. Fry these with the meat to soften the leeks and onions. If you have any cooking apples add a couple.
Season with salt, pepper, thyme, parsley, and marjoram.
Add a can of cheap cooking cider and water to cover the whole things
Slow cook in a low oven until everything is ready.
Serve with creamy potato mash and cabbage
A perfect autumn or winter meal, warming after an afternoon in the cold pulling sheep out of the briars.
I think that Autumn is my favourite season; the hard work of summer is over, the fruits of the spring are ready to be collected and the harshness of winter is still a while away. This is particularly so this year, after what has been a disappointing summer. Mostly warm and wet, it has caused us problems with the sheep and meant we have been unable to take hay. Twice we have had sheep who have had fly strike. Though they have survived, by dint of debridement and Stockholm tar, this was a terrible experience for both them and us. And, barring a miraculous Indian summer (or Haf bach Mihangel as we say around here) in October we will have to buy hay this winter. So, I am keen to see October arrive and know that the damned flies, and risk of fly strike, will soon be gone.
However, perhaps the main reason for enjoying this season is because it is the time you can enjoy the fruits of your labours and sometimes fruits without any labour at all. This time of the year we usually get a good crop of chantrelle mushrooms in the wood and this year has been no exception. They provided us with a few meals which required nothing more than what we can make on our own plot of land. My favourite was the chantrelle soup the recipe for which is below. This is a luxurious soup, warm, smooth and filling and better than any mass produced soup you may buy. Wonderful when its cost is measured in pennies !
Large bag of chantrelle mushrooms
3 Cloves of garlic
Pint Chicken stock
3 tablespoons of butter
Soften the onions and garlic by frying gently for 5 minutes in the butter. Add the mushrooms and continue to fry gently for a further 8 minutes. Add the flour and mix to a smooth consistency. Add the milk and stock and simmer for 20 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste.